Within hours after ill-fated model-actress Lindsay Lohan was busted on suspicion of drunk driving and drug possession in Santa Monica her teary eye father, and a parade of Hollywood celebrities, and some of Lohan's friends and associates, made sobbing, heart wrenching pleas on the Larry King show for public understanding of Lohan's ordeal. Lohan's attorney made his pitch for public understanding, calling addiction a terrible and vicious disease.
The kid glove protective attitude of many in the entertainment industry toward Lohan is hardly surprising. She has been released each time within hours on low bond, wears a SCRAM monitoring bracelet, and alcohol monitor on her ankle, gets tested regularly, and got top notch treatment at a posh Malibu, California rehab center. Her film, I Know Who Killed Me, which is scheduled for release almost certainly will pack audiences in, if for no other reason out of curiosity and her rogue name.
There's nothing wrong with Lohan's entertainment industry friends, and a star-struck public, pleading for empathy for her and urging the courts to spare her a jail sentence, and to give her the help that she obviously needs. But there are thousands of drug offenders that need the same compassion and help as Lohan. The big difference is that these drug abusers aren't high-profile, bankable screen commodities. They are mostly poor blacks and Latinos. The estimate is that nearly one-fourth of the more than one million blacks that pack America's prisons are there for non-violent, drug-related crimes. It costs billions to keep them there.
Putting them behind bars has had staggering consequences. It has torn apart families and communities. It has been the single biggest reason for the bloat in federal and state spending on prison construction, maintenance, and the escalation in the number of prosecutors needed to handle the flood of drug cases. Also, few poor, black and Latino drug offenders will be immediately released by police, as Lohan continues to be, and then be allowed to luxuriate in a posh drug treatment center.
The pampered treatment of celebrities such as Lohan carries another public pitfall. It could fuel a backlash to the mounting efforts by many drug reform advocates and public officials to push Congress to eliminate the gaping racially-warped disparity in the drug sentencing laws. These laws mandate minimum sentences for petty drug offenses for those tried in federal court. Far more black and Latino drug offenders, than whites, are tried there. Former President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno twice gave half-hearted approval to the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation that the drug sentencing laws be softened. Twice Congress has refused to act.
Lohan's repeated busts could also cripple efforts by drug reform advocates to win wider public support for state-wide initiatives such as Proposition 36 passed overwhelmingly by California voters a few years ago. The law mandates treatment, not jail for non-violent, first time drug offenders. Since then, other states have either passed or proposed similar laws that proscribe drug rehab rather than tossing the key on drug offenders. It's part a cost cutting measure, and part recognition that jails have been a grossly ineffective way to fight illicit drug abuse.
Drug warriors loath these initiatives. They claim that treatment, rather than severe jail sentences, encourages drug abusers to laugh at the courts and the law and puts the public at greater peril.
The notion that celebrities such as Lohan thumb their noses at the law has also stoked public anger over the celebrity double standard. That was glaringly evident in the recent tragicomic drama involving Lohan's other bad girl celebrity counterpart, Paris Hilton. Hilton's early release by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca brought the wrath of an angry public down on his head. The early release and her later puff ball treatment in jail was a blatant play of the celebrity double standard card. But it did at least momentarily open a small window of opportunity for prison reformers to use the Hilton case to demand the same medical treatment Hilton got for other female inmates.
That window slammed shut fast. L.A county officials haven't uttered a peep since the Hilton episode about spending more on treatment and rehab programs for drug abusers. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's department also has been mute on whether other inmates will get some facsimile of the medical treatment Hilton got.
A few years back a spokes person for the California Department of Corrections publicly declared that they would consider placing repeated celebrity drug abuser Robert Downey, Jr. in a residential treatment facility rather than the county jail. The spokesperson said without a hint that he recognized the celebrity double-standard, "We don't want to just lock them up." He meant the well-to-do and famous, such as Downey and now Lohan, not the thousands of poor and unknown. There are no such qualms about locking them up.
And we darn well know, there's won't be any teary-eyed pleas for understanding for them on the Larry King show.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.